The forgotten 'civil war'
Author tells Metcalf of Kennedys' role in 1962 desegregation battle

Editor's note: New research shows President John F. Kennedy ordered nearly 4,000 black soldiers to be segregated from a federal force of 20,000 troops deployed to quell a race riot at the University of Mississippi in 1962. The information was uncovered by author William Doyle, who says the revelation is confirmed by Pentagon documents he discovered during his research. According to Doyle, author of "An American Insurrection: The Battle of Oxford, Mississippi, 1962," The "Battle of Oxford" was centered around James Meredith's attempt to become the first black student to register at the University of Mississippi. WND's talk-radio host Geoff Metcalf interviewed Doyle about his surprising findings and about the true heros and scope of America's virtually unknown "civil war."

By Geoff Metcalf
Q: One of the challenges is there is so much content in the book, and one of our objectives is to get people to read the book, so I'm going to jump around and highlight some of its bullet points.

A: Sure.

Q: We'll get to James Meredith and George Wallace and others, but how did you get access to the uncensored words of John and Robert Kennedy?

A: John and Robert Kennedy had the tape recorders running in the Oval Office and the cabinet room, and you are then able to hear a verbatim record of these two men really botching up a terrible crisis. And "botch up" are the words Bobby Kennedy used. He described his brother, the president ...

Q: You call it "indecisive and misguided." You are being kind.

A: Yes, and it really was a disaster in progress for our country, because they lost control of a bloody confrontation in Oxford, Miss., where unfortunately, Americans were in combat -- hand-to-hand combat -- with each other. This was a white mob that basically went berserk, about 2,000 of them.

Q: Some people called it the last battle of the Civil War.

A: It really was, but it was also due to what I would say was the incompetence of the federal government in trying to manage this terrible crisis. And it was, Geoff, very important historically, because it was the only time that white people rose up -- by the thousands -- in the streets to block forced integration. It happened that night, and it evolved quickly into an armed rebellion.

Q: There were 30,000 combat troops involved in this incident!

A: Yes. This was a lightning invasion to restore law and order by infantry, military police, federalized National Guardsmen; 30,000 troops were mobilized, and it all happened at night. And the reason we haven't heard as much about this crisis is ... well for one thing, James Meredith became a hard-line conservative Republican, which is one of the loneliest things you can do in this country. The rest of his career was very controversial. He was not a civil-rights activist! That's the amazing thing about this crisis. He was a military man, a veteran, who said white supremacy in Mississippi would only be broken by force of arms. And that's what he did on this night. He forced the president and the military into battle behind him to get his rights as an American citizen. It is a very inspiring story.

Q: I had no idea. I mean, I knew who James Meredith was and read the printed accounts, but I didn't realize the real courage and tenacity and how focused he was.

A: He is an amazing man. He thought the civil-rights movement wasn't moving quickly enough in Mississippi. By the way, he thought that civil disobedience would be insane in Mississippi in 1962, because the state apparatus of control was so powerful and so violent, and he was right. He also thought, and this is one insight that really made me think about race relations in a different way in this era, he said, "The whole discussion of civil rights is an insult to me as an American citizen -- to me, James Meredith -- because that assumes that any of my rights are up for negotiation. And they are not." That was the attitude he always took, and I thought that was really a hell of a bold, courageous and new way to look at the equation.

Q: One of the more outrageous items -- and I'll be honest with you, until I read your book I did not know this -- RFK (Robert Kennedy), the icon of the left, ordered resegregagion of the armed forces of the units involved in this incident.

A: Yes. As a military policeman yourself, a former MP, you know how black and white troops have interacted as brothers in the American Army since, really, the 1950s. By 1962, that was a way of life, and you either got used to it or you got thrown right out of the Army. In 1962, that had been well-established. Leaders of our Army, many of them were black -- sergeants and lieutenants, where it counted on the front lines. In a secret meeting, I couldn't believe this, I interviewed veterans of this military operation. I found hundreds of them, black and white. And they started telling me about segregating the armed forces in the field. I thought, "That's interesting." I hadn't heard that before. They were disgraced by it and were outraged by it 40 years later. Low and behold, in the Pentagon files I found a memo detailing how Bobby Kennedy signed off on this obscenity on Sept. 27, 1962, and it got implemented in a chaotic way. What you had was the spectacle of black paratroopers, infantry, military police -- 4,000 of them -- being pulled apart, pulled out of their platoons, being stuck in rear areas and being ordered to do non-stop garbage and KP duty.

Q: This Army document your publicist was kind enough to send me is an eye-opener. Reading directly from it, "It appears in the record, then, that actually there was some confusion over the policy. It is possible the Charlie Force ..." That was the 716th, right?

A: Yes, the 716th out of Fort Dix.

Q: "... They understood its orders that if the unit were committed ... (and again, this is a direct quote) ... no Negro troops would be used."

A: Right. And let me tell you an amazing scene in American history. There was another MP outfit, the 503rd Military Police Battalion, a crack force of riot-fighting MPs out of Fort Bragg. White officers got this order that was approved by Attorney General Robert Kennedy the day before this invasion, and they couldn't believe it, because it would pull apart the battalion and eliminate the ability of them to perform effectively. There is a scene in my book that I did not believe until three senior officers who were in the room independently described it to me. The executive officer, a guy named Ray Levane -- who was a tough, combat decorated, Battle of the Bulge veteran, who knew he could get away with this if he ever got in trouble -- he took the order and tore it up into little pieces and threw it in the garbage. He did that to eight confirmations of that order, and those guys got to Oxford -- they were the first ones in -- with all their black troops shoulder to shoulder with the white troops.

Some people have told me that you can't look at 1962 from our vantage point today, because if the Kennedys sent in black troops, it would have caused a massacre. The locals would have gone crazy; it was a safe thing to do. That may be true.

Q: Bill, the South is different. Let me tell you, in 1971, I was at Fort Benning, Ga., and once dated a black woman. We were shot at.

A: You were shot at? I asked 101st Airborne paratroopers this question, and they said, "Look, we would have taken care of ourselves, we would have taken care of our buddies and we would have taken care of any civilians who tried to mess with us."

Q: I remember reading "Inside the Oval Office" that you wrote in, what, '99?

A: Yes, '99.

Q: I remember you were very, very kind to John F. Kennedy, and I actually dug up the quote. You were comparing his leadership style to others, and I think it was during the Cuban missile crisis you wrote, "It was a pragmatic leadership style ... self control, a call for multiple opinions, the discipline to think several steps ahead and the ability to put oneself in the other guy's shoes ..." After writing those laudatory words about JFK in 1999, did your opinion change after getting a look at the transcripts of the discussions he and Bobby had in '62?

A: In a sense, my opinion of him collapsed at several stages when I found out the full truth of the disgrace of segregating 4,000 black troops, which he signed off on, by the way -- it wasn't Bobby Kennedy. They did it in secret, and then they ducked responsibility for it. He had strengths and weaknesses. He was a complicated man who achieved very little in such a short time. But the Cuban missile crisis, Dean Atchison said it was dumb luck. He managed to not blow up the world.

Q: Hey, I'd rather be lucky than good.

A: It was probably the one thing he was put on earth to do, and maybe his one lasting achievement. I think, Geoff, it shows you something else about John Kennedy and race. And that is, when the door was closed and the Kennedy brothers talked about what was real, John Kennedy thought that the civil-rights movement, in this country, at this time, was "a goddamn mess," and he thought that it embarrassed him on the world stage. But that's not much different than what many white Americans thought at the time. In other words, Kennedy and Eisenhower were both segregationalist collaborators ... all their lives. None of them took a risk on this issue unless they were forced to by the real heroes of this period, like James Meredith. By the way, James Meredith is alive today and helped me with this book and is just a fascinating character.

Q: Actually, Martin Luther King had something to say about Meredith, didn't he?

A: Yes. Martin Luther King said, "One day, the South will recognize it's real heroes, and they will be the James Merediths." And that's really the quote that got me interested in finding out more about it.

Q: You paint a portrait of a fascinating man, 90 percent of which I was not aware.

A: He went to work for Jesse Helmes later in his career. So most people in the center or left of center, they kind of melt down and throw him into a box that says "Crazy Man" on it.

Q: Oh, they've got to marginalize him. They've got to do that. I also stumbled across an interesting little factoid. There was a search of Sigma Nu fraternity house by soldiers of the 716th.

A: Yes.

Q: Tell our readers who the chapter president was of that fraternity house.

A: This is a really interesting story. A young man, a junior from Pascagoula Miss., and a cheerleader actually, by the name of Trent Lott was the chapter president of Sigma Nu.

Q: Yes, boys and girls, that Trent Lott.

A: As dawn came on Oct. 1, 1962 -- this has never really come out before, and there is a bit of a mystery to it -- there was a horrible riot that had just occurred. There were 375 injuries. There were hundreds of civilian arrests. There was pure chaos in the town of Oxford, on the campus of the University of Mississippi and this enormous military invasion of Oxford, Miss. Troops were dropping in by helicopter and convoy. What's one of the first things they do? They conduct a lightning surprise raid on the fraternity house that Trent Lott is the president of. They discover, and seize and remove from the fraternity, 24 weapons -- shotguns, rifles and a pistol. To be fair to Trent Lott, and anybody who knows Mississippi will tell you ...

Q: What's the big deal? Every pick-up truck had guns.

A: Yes, there were guns everywhere in Mississippi, and that's legal and fine, and that's called the Second Amendment and it's called hunting season, which this was the start of. The strange thing is these guns -- most of them -- were shipped immediately to the FBI laboratory in Washington with J. Edgar Hoover's knowledge to find out if they had anything to do with the attacks on federal marshals and the deaths of two civilians the night before by pistols. There is no, and I repeat twice, no evidence that Trent Lott knew anything about the guns or that the guns had anything to do with the violence. And in fact, they probably didn't.

Q: Or that there was anything wrong with having them there. Come on, it's Mississippi, '62, guys hunt.

A: Everybody hunts.

Q: What are they hunting for may have been a question.

A: Listen, it could have been a great idea to get them safe and out of trouble and put them in one place. And he (Lott) spent the night before rounding his boys up and keeping them out of trouble. So he was a leader that night. It's documented. What's not documented is, how are troops allowed to seize private weapons away from their legal owners? And the frat boys were the legal owners of these rifles. Well, it turns out the troops were invited in by the university, because it had received a tip about an arsenal or a cache of weapons in this house. So that was the legal loophole the Army used to withdraw the weapons.

Q: What about constitutionally guaranteed rights?

A: The reason I bring it to light is it is a fascinating constitutional footnote, and it's also something that Trent Lott has never commented on. I think, frankly, he sees nothing to be gained by talking about this whole episode, because it has tended to make Mississippi look very bad.

Q: And that they wore blue shirts to match their red necks. Have you tried to ask Lott about it?

A: I tried no less than eight times to get a comment, and to be fair and provide him an opportunity to comment on that. I'm sure there could be an innocent explanation like, "Hey, I didn't know about it." I don't know what the explanation might be. His spokesman Guy Hovis in Jackson, Miss., never had the courtesy to call me back. But you're going to run into that as a so-called "Northern reporter," looking into something so long ago that makes the state look terrible. But, Geoff, there are heroes in this story, and they are all in the Army, by the thousands. I spoke to hundreds of them.

Q: Who are some of the greatest heroes of this story?

A: I'll tell you, white National Guardsmen who were not in favor of integrating the university back then.

Q: But were good soldiers.

A: That's right. Who risked their lives. They not only risked their lives, but they performed spectacular deeds of courage that I still don't believe, that are in my book, that I'm still not sure I believe because I was not there. They were supposed to have gotten medals. They were Army commendation medals, which, as you know, that really means something.

Q: I've got two of them.

A: You've got two of them? It's something to be really proud of, and it's something that these men earned in the field -- in a combat situation in our country -- which is something very few people understand. This night was combat -- hand-to-hand combat and small-arms fire being fired against these soldiers.

Q: And this was against friends and family; this was Civil War kind of stuff.

A: This is another reason you haven't heard this story. Back in '62, some of these young National Guardsmen had townspeople and even cousins, and in one case I know of, brothers in the mob attacking them. So they went home, and they never talked about this again until I wandered around in '97 to earlier last year, because at the time, they thought they might have been on the wrong side of this. But they were soldiers; they did their duty, and they restored law and order to a part of our country that collapsed into pure terror. And again, it was at night and there were no TV cameras rolling. In fact, the photographers were getting beaten up, and in one case killed. That's why we don't know about the episode.

Q: There was an epiphany that hit the Kennedys at one point, and it was that in order to enforce the Meredith federal court order, they were going to have to use physical force. In fact, Robert Shelton (Imperial Wizard of the United Klans of America) said, "This could be another war between the states." Talk us through that build-up to those 30,000 combat troops and how the episode really happened. It wasn't just the governor standing on the stops bitching.

A: Right. This was a tremendously dangerous national surge of interest and civilian volunteers and fighters that were going to converge upon the little city of Oxford, Miss. On Sept. 13, 1962, the Supreme Court said, James Meredith should go into the university. They upheld the federal court order. That day, Gov. Ross Barnett, who actually defended black people -- he was one of the few white lawyers in private practice who championed legal cases for black people before he was elected governor, but in office became what time Time Magazine called "the most bitter racist in the nation" -- swore he would not allow black people into the public schools. He declared, essentially, a rebellion in public against the federal government and said, "We will resist you with physical force to the bitter end." For 17 days, Barnett -- now this is the poorest state in the Union; it's kind of like the mouse that roared almost ...

Q: Sort of like Arkansas now?

A: But you know he had hundreds of state police, highway patrol and a National Guard force; nobody was sure which side they'd fight on. And in four televised ridiculous showdowns, Barnett stood there, or his deputies stood there, and blocked James Meredith. Eventually, the Kennedys realized we've got to send force in. Real force. But they did it in a typically sort of half-baked way. They sent in federal marshals, a few hundred of them, in ridiculous combat outfits that were sort of in between civilian and military. They sent them down there on the spur of a moment with no plan, no real battle plan, and their equipment all got lost. So as a result, the mob, at 8 o'clock on the night of the riot ...

Q: Were organized ...

A: Everything fell apart, and you had two incredible characters -- white supremacy leaders at that time, and I actually found both of them. They are both still alive. As you said, Robert Shelton, who was then the head of the biggest Klan ...

Q: He's still alive?

A: Robert Shelton is still alive in Alabama. At that time, the Klan was not a joke like it later became ... a dangerous joke. But it was a serious, powerful force of some 20,000 people who could be mobilized in trucks with guns. And they were mobilized for this crisis. The first wave of Klansmen actually made it into Oxford from Alabama and started doing battle with the federal forces. So Robert Shelton, I asked him, "What were you thinking at this moment in history?" And he said, "I remember very clearly; I thought that this could be another war between the states." That's what the stakes were. That's how dangerous this crisis was.

Q: Who was the other white supremacy leader you found?

A: The other white supremacy leader was the opposite of Shelton. He was a community leader, William Simmons, essentially the founder of the modern citizens' councils across the South. He is a charming, sophisticated, wealthy intellectual, who at the time thought integration was a bad idea, as I think many, many Northern and Southern whites thought then.

Q: That was the conventional wisdom then.

A: Yes, that was a mainstream theology. It's easy to look at white Mississippi from the comfort of 40 years later and say, "Well, you know they are savages. Look at the way they treat their black citizens." As I said before, Eisenhower, Kennedy and a lot of white Americans were collaborationalists with segregationists, and to me that's just as dangerous, just as bad as being an active spokesman for it.

Q: After the posturing and the troops actually started to move, how did we mobilize 30,000 combat troops so quickly, and what happened?

A: It was a miracle, and all communications broke down from the top down.

Q: I remember commanding a National Guard unit and being activated to go into the state prisons when the guards went on strike. We took a battalion in, and it was a royal pain in the neck mobilizing those troops and getting them in in secret in about 10 hours.

A: Sometimes the U.S. military can perform literal miracles. They are doing that right now on the other side of the planet. They did it in Mississippi. That's another reason we haven't heard as much about this. The soldiers were disgraced by segregation. They were dishonored by the medals that were denied them for political reasons. But they did incredible things.

Q: Those Army commendation medals were never awarded?

A: There was not a single decoration for this operation. The reason I sent you the Army memo that I found was first, "it would not be in the national interest for additional interest to be focused on this incident." In other words, politics. Secondly, "we shouldn't give decorations to American soldiers involved in conflict with other Americans," and that's a disgrace. Someday those troops ought to be recognized, because what they did that night was they rescued hundreds of civilians who were on the verge of being slaughtered by this riot. And I mean that literally. Also, they rescued the University of Mississippi, and they rescued the city of Oxford. They did it by moving very quickly, they were trained well and they came in by helicopter and land convoy without any cross communication. They were infantry from Fort Campbell, MPs from Fort Bragg, National Guardsmen coming in from every little town in Mississippi. Every little town in Mississippi had a National Guard Armory, and all those guys showed up in their uniforms, and they went into battle, the first thousand of them ...

Q: Against friends and family and neighbors.

A: Yes. And they were on the other side of this. They did not believe in integrating the university. What they did that night I will never understand. I'm not sure I would have had the guts to do it myself, but they went home and quietly became the doctors and farmers and storekeepers of Mississippi, and they never, and I mean never, talked about this episode again.

Q: What were the physical casualties?

A: There were 375 military and civilian casualties. There were two civilians shot dead in circumstances that are still a mystery to this day. There were 300 civilian arrests and hundreds of privately owned firearms seized by federal troops. Which, of course, is a fascinating constitutional discussion. There were loopholes they used to do that. It is kind of an interesting question about how posse comitatus could allow that.

Q: No. It doesn't!

A: There is an exception for actions authorized by the Constitution or by statute, by presidential action, authorized by either. This had a clear statute authorization.

Q: What the hell was the authorization?

A: It was the president suppressing an insurrection or a rebellion. And that is what it was. What very few people understand about this event was that it was an armed insurrection and a revolt that lasted for 14 hours. But again, there is not a single good picture of this fighting because -- there are scenes in my book of photographers who have been beaten within an inch of their lives, bloody, wandering the streets begging for their lives. That was the ferocity of what went on that night.

Q: This is the best, and maybe the only, fully documented account of this battle. One thing that struck me, based on my own experience, is that the military writes after-action reports on anything and everything from a weekend bivouac. There is paper up the wazoo as standard operating procedure; it's inculcated into you. You write an after-action report -- what were the lessons learned? Some commanders require stanza and verse on each of the five paragraphs of a field order: situation, mission, execution, logistics, command and signal, ad nauseum. The document you sent me, is this the only document that exists as any kind of after-action report?

A: That is a very good Army history that absorbs all the detail of all the after-action reports, that I believe are still on file at the Pentagon. But the best after-action report I got was from the white local Mississippi National Guard commander, a captain who was William Faulkner's nephew, actually. He helped me a great deal in writing this book. Chooky Faulkner from Oxford. He wrote it all down in 1963, put it in his file and he never showed it to a soul until I went to his house in 1998, and he pulled it out. It was old and yellowing, and he said, "Here, look at this."

Q: What was your reaction?

A: My jaw dropped, because it was a story of combat in our country that we had never heard of, and I could not believe.

Q: I know you are a research hound, but what was the biggest surprise to you in researching this book?

A: The level of ferocity of this battle. And the courage displayed by privates and sergeants in the National Guard and the military police and the infantry. And the level of physical courage that this young, black, American veteran -- an Air Force veteran actually -- James Meredith, displayed in this crisis. And really, the genius of his strategy. He looked at this and he said this is not a protest or a demonstration. This is overwhelming physical force that I will mobilize to achieve this objective, and that is just what he did.

Q: Bill, this is truly a fascinating and compelling story that, to many, is a footnote in some history book. James Meredith is really the hero in this, isn't he?

A: He is. Meredith and the troops that followed him into this battle, many of whom didn't want to be there. Remember, one of the reasons you haven't heard much about this crisis is for people who were there. It was such a horrible event that most of the local witnesses decided never to talk about this again.

Q: Why?

A: Because they thought that it made their state and their university and their city look horrible. And it did in the press at that time. But when you look at it and you really get to know the people involved and the local heroes, I think that it is one of the most inspiring moments in our nation's history, because the Constitution held us together, and Americans risked their lives by the hundreds to save other Americans on a tremendous scale. That to me is about as inspiring as American history can get.

Q: I was embarrassed to realize how little I knew about this incident and how little I knew about James Meredith. Meredith said, "I wasn't there as a student." Gee, I thought he was. He said, "I was there as a soldier. I was a general. I was in command of everything."

A: He also said, "I was at war, and I considered everything I did an act of war." Those were the stakes in Mississippi in 1962. It was a nightmare land if you were black. It was just a surreal Kafka-esque nightmare, where every vestige of citizenship was stripped away from you. But to James Meredith, American citizenship was sacred, and that's what the whole thing was about. Not civil rights. He saw the fundamental issue as citizenship. And really, the surprise to me was I realized how sacred citizenship is. In that sense, he is a great leader in the thought process of civil rights.

Q: In the wake of the time passed, all these different people to whom you spoke -- which is a story in and of itself -- how you tracked all these people down and engaged them in talking about this, was there any significant change in their attitudes and their recollections of what they lived through in 1962 and today?

A: Some people's entire outlook changed this night. In fact, many of the white students at Old Miss were so shocked and appalled by what happened that they immediately entered an entirely new race consciousness. Some of the old-line racists, for lack of a better word, see everything that has happened since then as vindication of their original feelings. You know, crime and bad schools -- they trace it all to integration, which is really ridiculous. But some Mississippi people were radicalized by this event. The founder of the modern Mississippi Klan -- there are actually two Klan gangs that blossomed in Mississippi after this event -- told me that the reason he started the Klan in Mississippi was this event, that it had to be a guerrilla campaign against the federal government, because you couldn't beat them in the field. They had too many troops.

It had a tremendous impact on everybody who was there, and it's an important moment in our history. This was the night massive resistance to integration was crushed forever. There certainly are problems that remain to this day. My state, New York, is the worst state in the Union on the issue of public-school segregation -- de facto segregation -- and nobody talks about it anymore. It's just sort of accepted as a way of life.

Q: This event happened in 1962. But the media culpability in not covering it -- I mean, 30,000 combat troops going into battle against friends and family -- it just seems that someone at one of the three big networks at the time would have been on this story like white on rice.

A: That is a fascinating point. Don't forget, network news was 15 minutes per night. This was just before network news went full time.

Q: If this happened today, CNN would package it for at least a week or more.

A: Oh, absolutely. Also, don't forget the Kennedy brothers were as devious as politicians as any that followed them, and they automatically and completely hushed this up. They sealed up 9,000 pages of FBI files routinely that went into a black hole of history until I went through them in '98 and '99. No one had laid eyes on these files. Much of my book is built on those files, and the detail is totally unbelievable in terms of conflict and drama and courage. The Kennedys were cover-up artists that made Richard Nixon look like a gang that couldn't shoot straight in a sense, in my opinion. But they did it in a charming way. They had the media in the palm of their hands. And after their gruesome deaths, no one bothered to challenge some of the basic assumptions.

Q: So are you saying the perception of the Kennedys as civil-rights heroes is inconsistent with the reality?

A: Geoff, the image of them as civil-rights heroes is preposterous, and it's a fraud against the real heroes -- the people like Meredith and King and ...

Q: And the National Guardsmen on the line.

A: Yes, and who would not be thought of as civil-rights heroes then, but who were something even greater than that: Americans who did their duty, which is as inspiring in '62 as it is now or in any other time.